A stream of consciousness: Art, consciousness, self-consciousness and the unconscious

What is a ‘stream of consciousness’? This presupposes that one knows what consciousness is, and how it differs from the unconscious, and from self-consciousness. Briefly, consciousness means an awareness of something, most broadly your environment. In this sense, even plants are conscious, as shown by the phenomenon of phototropism. Self-consciousness, by contrast, denotes not just consciousness, but the awareness that one is conscious, stepping back and acknowledging one’s consciousness. Humans are self-conscious in this sense, and I would argue that all artistic activity presupposes self-consciousness. The unconscious is that realm of the human psyche where repressed materials are encountered, but only with the help of someone who can decode the signs of the unconscious in one’s speech or writing.

Can one connect the concept known as ‘stream of consciousness’ with art? This is quite a tricky question, which is anything but straightforward, and can be answered both affirmatively and negatively. The reason, succinctly stated, is because ‘stream of consciousness’ denotes, first of all, a description of a mental state where one has neutralised, as it were, all conscious ‘direction’ of one’s thinking, and put one’s mind in ‘neutral’, freewheeling along, in a manner of speaking.

If one thinks about it in this way, it should be clear that an artist who is in the process of creating or constructing a work of art very rarely – if at all – gets into ‘stream of consciousness’ mode, mostly directing their actions consciously and deliberately from stage to stage. For instance, a painter would step back, reflect on her or his use of colour, or the texture of the paint they are using, and either modify it or nod approvingly. Or a sculptor may reproach him- or herself for not giving their subject just the right figural tilt to convey the physical strain they are trying to embody.

And yet, there are – and have been – many instances of artists, both plastic and literary, who have painstakingly adopted the mental attitude describable as ‘stream of consciousness’, precisely to remove all traces of deliberate steering of the creative process. In literature James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man comes to mind, and in the visual arts Jean Arp’s ‘automatic drawings’ stand as paradigm of ‘stream of consciousness’ art, associated with surrealism. But what do these amount to, then, and can one still call it art when the will of the artist, to direct the creative process, is voluntarily and intentionally short-circuited?

Perhaps I should backtrack a little to put the notion of ‘stream of consciousness’ in historical and theoretical perspective. As far as I know, the person who coined the phrase was psychologist and philosopher, William James (brother of novelist, Henry James), who used it in Chapter IX of the first volume of his The Principles of Psychology (1890), where he talks of consciousness as a “river” or “stream” that “flows”, and that cannot be “chopped up in bits”, at least not as it “appear[s] to itself” (p. 239).

This resonates unmistakably with the work of French philosopher, Henri Bergson (see particularly his 1907 book, Creative Evolution), who thought of the true character of reality as ‘élan vital’ (‘vital impetus’), which contrasts sharply with the usual way of thinking about reality in materialist terms as discrete ‘material objects’, juxtaposed with one another in space, as our intellect represents them to us. For Bergson it is ‘intuition’, however, which enables us to grasp reality as a stream, or flow, which continues uninterruptedly, until broken into distinct objects by the intellect for pragmatic purposes.

Seen in this way, artists who are able to approach reality intuitively, may gain rare glimpses of it as a stream, or flow, and use various techniques to present what it is like in this ontological mode. Needless to say, it is actually very difficult to lapse into such a passively experienced, non-controlled stream of consciousness, and set aside the all-too-pervasive pragmatic approach, where the intellect construes the world in terms of juxtaposed, or successive, material objects, as one was taught from an early age, and one engages one’s will throughout to deal with this reality. Just try it, and you will see.

There is a connection with the work of Sigmund Freud, too, but in a surprising way. When Freud first invented psychoanalysis, he employed the technique of hypnosis to be able to neutralise his patients’ conscious ‘control’ of their thinking, so that he could ‘get to’ those unconscious mental constructions that were the source of mental problems. He eventually gave that up in favour of the technique of ‘free association’ on the part of the patient, to enable him to gain access to unconscious formations in the psyche. ‘Free association’ consists in giving up one’s normal way of thinking and talking – where you consciously direct your thinking and conversation – and say whatever comes into your mind, no matter how arbitrary or disconnected. In fact, the more arbitrary and unconnected, the better, because the point of ‘free association’ is to neutralise all attempts at rational control or ‘logical’ thinking. Why? Because logic is what covers up the true, ‘unconscious’ motives underpinning our actions.

Hence, insofar as Freud’s technique of ‘free association’ resembles a way of gaining access to a ‘stream of consciousness’ on the part of the patient, it may seem to differ from William James’s idea, but I believe this impression is inaccurate. Like James (and Bergson), Freud knew that consciousness as a ‘stream’ is not synonymous with our usual or normal consciousness of the world, which is all-too controlled by ourselves. This is why it has to be brought about by ‘free association’, so that the ‘symptoms’ and signs of unconscious motives and repressed materials can be perceived by the attentive therapist.

Hence, to return to art, for an artist to practice ‘stream of consciousness’ art she or he would have to find, and use, techniques similar to those used by Freud, to gain access to an aspect, or ‘face’, of reality that has not been modified by ‘normal’, pragmatic thinking, where ‘rational’ processes alienate the intuitively accessed appearance of the world – or, as James put it, where consciousness can be glimpsed as it “appear[s] to itself”. The vast majority of artworks in the world are not the products of such a neutralising technique or method of practising art, and I believe artists would agree with me that it is actually an extremely difficult technique to implement – most of the time we ‘edit’ our conversations and our actions (including practising art), instead of just allowing random sequences of thoughts, words or actions to take precedence over these.

Jean-Francois Lyotard (in The Lyotard Reader, Basil Blackwell, 1989, p. 169) has written on what he calls ‘acinema’, which would be a cinematic practice analogous to a phenomenon like being ‘asocial’ (that is, not social, nor anti-social, but so different as to be irrelevant to these). ‘Acinema’, which is difficult to imagine, would be a completely random, non-edited, sequence or ‘stream’ of cinematic images that would make no sense in terms of existing cinematic practices, particularly insofar as these are usually aimed at making the finished product ‘smooth’ (or having the appearance of being smooth), fitting in with the conventional view of the world. ‘Acinema’ (as cinematic artform), by contrast, would be a grating experience, with no ostensible rhyme or reason. Enter the Void (2009), a film by Argentinian director Gaspar Noé, comes close to being an example of ‘acinema’, but even here there are unmistakable signs of direction. If you can get to view it you would get a sense of it, though, and also of what a stream-of-consciousness’ film would be like.

Hence my question, if not challenge, to artists – including the ones who have participated or are participating in the imminent art exhibition at the well-known Liebrecht Gallery in Somerset West, titled ‘A Stream of Consciousness’ – in the light of all the considerations, above, do you believe that your artwork is truly the product of ‘a stream of consciousness’?